Five Italian female professors on why Dutch women are lagging behind
At least half of the 53 female professors at Radboud University come from abroad. What is going on with equal rights here? Five Italian female professors talk about how Dutch women are spoiled (What do you mean by “time for yourself”?!) and the part-timer principle.
‘Buona sera.’ Titti Mariani, Professor of Plant Sciences, strolls into the shop of caterer J.P. Vincken and greets her friends, who are also fellow professors, in brisk Italian. They eat together on the last Friday of every month, but are now gathering to share a meal with a Vox journalist. ‘You could never do that with five Dutch women’, says Carla-Rita Palmerino, Professor of the History of Modern Philosophy. ‘They would pull out their diaries and it would end up being two months later. We are more used to improvising.’
As the antipasti is brought to the table, the women talk in amazement about how so many female professors at Radboud University come from abroad. When it comes to the exact sciences faculties, they make up nearly 100 percent. ‘I really don’t understand it’, says Alessandra Cambi, Professor of Cell Biology in the medical faculty. ‘Dutch childcare infrastructure is so good! You can have kids here without having Granddad and Nan in the neighbourhood, too.’
Mariani points out an economic reason: due to poverty and poor social facilities, Italian women have traditionally been accustomed to working. ‘In the Netherlands, that isn’t necessary—the salaries are high enough.’ Elena Marchiori, Professor of Machine Learning, nods: ‘It is precisely in the less economically developed countries that you see many women in science.’
Prosperity may act as a ceiling for equal rights. There is a reason these five Italian women feel that part-time work a Dutch phenomenon: ‘Ask the Dutch girls in secondary school how many hours they plan on working later in life and they’ll tell you 28 hours.’
That may be why there are more working women here (65 percent in the Netherlands versus 49 percent in Italy), but creating a career this way is certainly harder. Cambi: ‘Getting a top position by working 3.5 days a week does not happen.’
Yet that part-timer principle is deeply embedded in the minds of Dutch women. ‘When my oldest son went to sign up for university day care, I was told that a maximum of three days per week is standard and good for your child. After that, it is difficult to say that you want four or five days.’
In countries like France, Italy, and Spain, full-time care is actually very common, whether it is handled by family or not. Despite that, Annalisa Fasolino, Professor of Computational Condensed Matter, recognises that in her generation, many women who wanted to advance in science decided not have children. ‘Because that would have closed a lot of doors for them. Luckily, that is no longer necessary.’
Mariani nods: ‘When I was a postdoc in Germany, I didn’t go to work on a Saturday, because I still had to go grocery shopping and do laundry once in a while. That Sunday, my boss asked me, ‘Where were you yesterday?’ Can you even imagine a life like that with a child?’
Since then, universities have regulations that provide women with additional time if they become pregnant during a PhD or postdoc programme. However, you go back to working yourself to the bone afterwards. Marchiori points out the high demands for tenure tracks, in which candidates—at least those in the exact science faculties—have to prove themselves within six years, including by bringing in a half million euros. ‘As a tenure track counsellor, I see how much stress and uncertainty this causes, especially for women. These are unnecessary requirements: these people are extremely good; don’t make it so difficult.’
Mariani: ‘My recommendation to Radboud University is to not simply follow what others do like sheep, but rather to create your own policy instead.’
Cambi has a suggestion. She once read an appealing description in an NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) request: “Our institute fosters a safe and pleasant climate and stimulates creativity and low administrative burden.”
Everyone at the table bursts into laughter: Where is that place?!
Cambi: ‘Under the guise of excellence, we are moving towards the impossible and the inhuman, particularly for young people and even more so for women.’
Equal treatment by men could be better, too. In appointment committees, the Italian women all too often hear a sniggering: ‘Well then, RU is in a hurry and has to appoint a few women.’
Fasolino: ‘And then you still have to defend yourself if there are too few women. Why didn’t you try harder? Then I ask: and what did you do?’
Mariani was once asked why she was in a certain committee. ‘Right, because you’re a woman. To which I said: “Or maybe it’s because I’m a member of KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)?”‘
Cambi’s manager tried to give her a compliment: ‘Alessandra, you work so hard, sometimes I ask myself: don’t you have to go be with your children?’ Her response: ‘I said it was sweet that you are worried about me, but I don’t think you would have asked if I were a man.’
The gnocchi stuffed with mushrooms are served. ‘Nyotchy’, says the caterer, who is corrected with a chorus of “Nyocky” from the women. We talk about their education. With the exception of Palmerino, they all have a background in the exact sciences. Why is choosing the exact sciences more common for women in Italy? They explained to me that it is established in the educational system. ‘The gap between the humanities and the exact sciences is much larger in the Netherlands than in other countries’, says Palmerino. ‘That already starts in secondary school when you choose a humanities or exact sciences profile. If you choose the humanities, it’s considered kind of lazy.’
Personally, they studied at a school where humanities students also studied physics and mathematics and exact sciences students studied philosophy and history. Mariani: ‘After that, you can do what you want. Here, you’ve chosen your course of study halfway through secondary school.’
This early choice of profile hinders girls in particular. Research shows that, due to pressure from their environment and peers, girls choose the exact sciences less often than would be expected based on their talents. It is still widely felt among young people that the exact sciences are for boys.
Marchiori and her female colleagues visited secondary schools to act as positive role models. ‘Young people have traditional opinions about computing science: that is for nerds and, therefore, boys.’
Fasolino would have done that as well, but she felt unsure about visiting schools due to her broken Dutch. ‘I would have loved more outreach—as a woman in physics, that was really something that suited me. I think that I have played an important role for my students. I took them seriously, even when they were unsure.’
However, we cannot simply blame the men, the educational system, and the culture. We have to point our fingers at Dutch women, too. ‘Dutch women are spoiled. I’m sorry for saying it, but they want to have everything nice and fun, yet they don’t want to work hard for it’, says Mariani.
Palmerino: ‘What strikes me about the Netherlands is how often women ask me, “But when do you have time for yourself?” That is a concept that I was not familiar with in Italy.’
The others nod and say: your job and spending time with your children is time for yourself.
Palmerino: ‘I don’t need to drink coffee on Friday afternoons or work out three days a week.’
Fasolino: ‘When I came here, I needed to have a hobby. Everyone asked me what my hobby was.’
There is a round of laughter—they all recognise this.
Cambi: ‘Maybe it is something intrinsic in the Dutch female population. I see many young female scientists who simply don’t have that drive to go all out for their careers. And that’s fine, but if this is our focus then there still won’t be more than 20-25 percent female professors. I am a different type of woman and I want to be that kind of woman without being put into the ‘too ambitious’ box. What is too ambitious? I feel as if women view me that way more often than men.’
Palmerino: ‘In men, it’s a positive trait, but in women, it’s considered a little too much.’
Cambi: ‘A man is passionate and a woman is aggressive.’
Marchiori: ‘Or emotional. And Italian and emotional at that.’
Palmerino: ‘But I think that we shouldn’t make the situation in Italy…’
The rest of the women join her: ‘…sound like it’s perfect!’
They did not consciously choose a Dutch university, but ended up there because they were given an opportunity in their field or, like Fasolino, they were following someone they loved. ‘Of course, that is the worst possible reason, at least in terms of your career. In Italy, I had a good job with many responsibilities and here, I was initially only able to get a spot as an assistant professor.’
None of them want to go back to an Italian university. The academic world is very closed off there—’You’ll never find an Italian university with five Dutch professors’—and it’s strongly hierarchical. In terms of organisation and focus on the student, they could learn a lot from the Netherlands. ‘For example, in Italy you’ll have lectures worth 6 course credits, but the lecturer has an enormous ego and provides at least 15 course credits worth of material. No one dares to say anything there. The feasibility for studying the material is given attention here.’
Palmerino: ‘The importance of students is the focus and the learning objectives are discussed. There is a clear idea of what a student must know once they leave the university.’
They are full of praise for the student evaluations after each course and for the voice which students have at the degree programme committees. In Italy, the professor is all too often the lord and master.
Guidance for PhD candidates and postdocs is much better here as well.
Cambi: ‘The knowledge of Italian students is greater: they’re not afraid of looking back into those big books to study. But their critical capacity is much lower.’
Will they go back to Italy after they receive emeritus status? Mariani doubts it—the three younger women feel at home in the Netherlands. Fasolino, who just gained emeritus status, is going back. ‘If you stay here, you are inclined to just keep working. It’s good to leave and let the university go.’ Without the university, Nijmegen has little to offer her. More importantly, there are two big drawbacks: ‘The sea is too far away and it isn’t flat: you have to bike up so many hills.’ She is going to live by the sea in a village near Rome, her hometown.
‘Rome is built on seven hills, you know’, teases Mariani.
Fasolino promises that she will introduce the concept of planning in Italy. The ladies erupt into laughter again. ‘No, really, it’s great. It saves so much time. We don’t have anything like it.’
Cambi: ‘We have something more like unplanning or poor planning.’
[kader-xl]The Dutch are predictable
Among foreigners, the Dutch are known for being direct. However, the five Italian women think we are predictable, too. ‘Ask a Dutch person how their holiday was and it is always ‘really fun’ and ‘fantastic’. Even if it rained and the flight was late.’
Palmerino smiling: ‘That’s optimism. It’s interesting, it is always said that the Dutch like to complain a lot.’
Marchiori: ‘Dutch people always say, “It was fun, right?”‘
Mariani: ‘My word for the Dutch is “boring”. You can predict exactly what the next sentence in a conversation will be.’
The others think that is going a little too far. Palmerino: ‘They are not boring, but there are more unwritten rules for behaviour—behaviour is more uniform.’
Fasolino also sees the benefits in that: ‘You have a ceremony or a procedure for every occasion, whether it’s a funeral or a birthday, and that’s nice.’
They have more compliments: Dutch men are preferable to Italian ones—three of the women speak from experience. ‘Dutch men really make you feel appreciated’, says Cambi. Fasolino adds: ‘Italian men can’t do anything; they have two left hands.’ They are also spoiled and their wives always blame it on their mothers. The women all confirm the truth in that. Cambi: ‘Dutch men are much more independent: they know how a washing machine works.’
Above all, they appreciate Dutch society for its efficiency, pragmatism, and good social services. ‘We come from one of the most hierarchical societies; one with a great deal of inequality.’ They have not even started talking about political corruption in Italy, the long lines for the post office, and the flimsy decision-making process. Rapid new construction as can be seen on the Nijmegen campus would be impossible in their country. ‘There would be an argument and work would come to a halt or the business would go bankrupt.’
Fasolino summarises: ‘Italy would really be the most wonderful country in the world if a few Dutch people were there to tell them how to do things.'[/kader-xl]